This paper investigates the representation of the distinctive geological features of Campania in Greek and Roman mythical, literary, historical, philosophical and geological contexts. Even before the Campanian earthquake in 62 or 63 CE and the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 CE, some remarked on the area’s resemblance to the known dangers of Sicily’s Mount Etna. Vitruvius in his discussion of pozzolana, the volcanic ash that has distinctive properties when used to make cement, attributes its formation to underground fires comparable to those at Etna and says that in ancient times such flames did burn beneath Vesuvius (Vitr. De Arch. 2.6.1-4). Strabo too compares Vesuvius to Etna and suggests that perhaps Vesuvius’ subterranean fires have died down through lack of fuel (Str. 5.4.8; cf. Str. 6.2.3, citing Poseidonius’ discussion of ash near Etna). Book 6 of Seneca’s Natural Questions and the didactic poem Aetna indicate the scientific and philosophical frameworks available for interpreting volcanic landscapes.
The younger Pliny’s description (Ep. 6.16 and 6.20) of the elder Pliny’s death during the eruption has received a great deal of attention. Poets writing after 79 CE react to the catastrophe in a variety of ways. Valerius Flaccus (Arg. 3.209 and 4.509) uses Vesuvius similes as part of a strategy of measuring the Greek myth of Jason’s Argonautica in recognizably Roman terms. Silius Italicus uses the violent potential that lies beneath the Campanian landscape to depict the scale of Hannibal’s battles in Italy (8.654, 17.595-6; cf. 4.275-8); Hannibal himself receives an informative tour of the area’s mythical and geological features while he is at Capua (12.108-157). As noted by Watson and Watson 2003, Martial (4.4) depicts Vesuvius as a victim of capricious gods, rather than as the source of Campanian troubles. For Statius (Silv. 4.4.78-85) the aftermath of the Vesuvian eruption is a demonstration of resilience.
Of particular interest are representations of Vesuvius and the Phlegraean fields that set the mythical gigantomachy in comparison with political strife. When and how was the term Phlegraean fields transferred from Pallene – site of a gigantomachy – in Macedonia to Campania? To what extent do the political overtones associated with gigantomachy as a metaphor for assault on established power become associated with the Campanian landscape? The poem on the Civil War in Petronius’ Satyricon compares Caesar and Pompey’s Civil War to (Campanian) Gigantomachy in a relatively straightforward way. More complex perhaps is Dio’s account of the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 CE: he says that figures resembling the Giants appeared in the smoke associated with the eruption, and some thought the Giants were rising up in revolt (66.23). In some ways Dio’s gigantomachic narrative of Vesuvius can be understood to set the scene for the death of Titus and coming to power of Domitian. A similar narrative arc is evident in Plutarch’s mention of Vesuvius in his ‘The Divine Vengeance’: in a narrative constructed to resemble Plato’s myth of Er, a certain Thespesius is shown what happens to souls after death. On the tour he is almost in a position to glimpse the oracle at Delphi, where he hears ‘the Sibyl’ give a prophecy of the eruption of Vesuvius and hears a scrap of verse predicting that a good emperor (presumably Titus) would die of natural causes (Mor. 566 E)
The distinctive and violent landscape of Campania brings into sharp focus powerful questions about human capacities to know and control the forces that shape experience.